PostClassic: September 2005 Archives
My, oh my - it turns out the good people at New England Conservatory are reeeally touchy about that Charles Ives line I quoted in connection with them ("You never hear negro spirituals mentioned up there to the New England Conservatory!"). I got blown away by my own little personal Hurricane Katrina of sarcasm, via e-mail from their PR department. Number one, Charles Ives said it, not me. Number two, it was more than 80 years ago - you think they'd laugh it off by this point. Number three, I didn't really consider the line a reflection on NEC - it was Ives, fairly or not, making fun of a hypothetical schoolmarm who considered NEC the respectable final arbiter on all things musical. I suppose I shouldn't have referred to it as "Ives's complaint," then, and I happily withdraw the term.
Number four, I'm from the wrong side of America's musical tracks, and that quote is about all I have to connect with NEC. The school doesn't come up often in discussions of Harry Partch, or Diamanda Galas, or Charlemagne Palestine. If I had some historical quotes like the following, I would surely have used them instead:
Harry Partch: "I can never thank New England Conservatory enough for supporting my work on the instruments I needed to complete Delusion of the Fury."
Glenn Branca: "It was New England Conservatory that nurtured my efforts to write symphonies for electric guitars."
You go into a blog entry with the historical references you have, not the ones you wish you had, or might hope to have at a later time.
I drove 190 miles to Boston last night to hear a concert of John Luther Adams's music at NEC, as I've learned they call New England Conservatory. I had never been there before, and all I could think about were Charles Ives's complaints about the place: "[In an old lady's voice,] You never hear negro spirituals mentioned up there to the New England Conservatory!" But anyway, pianist Stephen Drury, famous for performances of Cage and Zorn piano works, has an ensemble there, and had organized a wonderful Adams program: Strange Birds Passing for flute ensemble of 1983, Red Arc/Blue Veil for piano, percussion, and tape of 2002, and the world premiere of For Lou Harrison.
This last piece is for two pianos, string quartet, and string orchestra. It opened with a riveting opening gesture, in which all of the instruments swept upward through their full ranges in huge, lush arpeggios at different tempos, settling at last into a calm chord. That gesture came back again and again and again, initiating each new phase of the piece. For an hour several rhythmic levels flowed in contradiction to each other, the string quartet launching into a new crescendo while the orchestra was still, the pianos booming into new arpeggios as the string quartet was still, some lines doubled in unison but otherwise hardly any two levels of activity ever at the same speed. It seemed to me that the entire piece was all within a single diatonic scale, though apparent changes of harmony entered with each new drone note in the bass; John tells me, though, that the key changed a few times, though so discreetly that I never caught it happening. At last the rhythmic levels dropped out one by one, and the piece died away with a radiant, pp chord in the orchestral violins.
Someone afterward ventured an opinion that JLA's music does best on recording, that hearing such long, still, sustained textures in live performance distracted one from the gorgeous surface. I see the point, and I look forward to the recording that the group was scheduled to make today. You just don't necessarily want to be sitting confined in a chair, surrounded by strangers, as those intermittent waves of sound wash over you. Still, it was lovely to watch how the piece worked. The pianists (Yukiko Takagi and Keith Kirchoff) kept up a magnificent independence, the quartet sang through their rising lines heroically, and I think the audience members felt that they had been present for an important premiere. For Lou Harrison is the third in a trilogy of Adams orchestra works, the first two being Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowning and In the White Silence. I think In the White Silence might still be slightly my favorite (perhaps because I'm addicted to the way John uses celesta), but For Lou Harrison could easily grow on me. John claims that he's through writing for orchestra; we'll see. He is currently working on a big electronic sound installation for a museum in Fairbanks. And he recounted, in the program notes, a conversation he'd had with Lou Harrison:
...At the time Lou was enjoying a surge in performances of his orchestral music, and I suggested that this must be gratifying to him.
"It's nice," he said, "but it's not really what we do."
I asked him to elaborate.
"The orchestra is a glorious noise. But the heart and soul of our music lies elsewhere. We're the ones who form our own ensembles, makes our own tunings, build our own instruments, and create our own musical worlds. We're the 'Do It Yourself' school of American music!"
I was humbled. Here Lou was finally starting to receive from the classical music establishment some measure of the recognition he deserved, yet he wasn't seduced at all.
And that is what being a postclassical composer is all about.
Donald Rumsfeld comes into Bush's office to give him his daily briefing. Among other things, he says, "Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed."
"OH NO!" the President exclaims. "That's terrible!"
Bush goes into a display of emotion that stuns his staff, who nervously watch as he sits with his head in hands.
Finally, Bush looks up and asks, "How many is a brazillion?"
I'm writing program notes for Toru Takemitsu's Fantasma/Cantos, which is being played by the Cincinnati Orchestra this season. I find the title inelegant, but it's a gorgeous work. Written in 1991 for clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, it makes the orchestra sound like physical clouds of tones through which the clarinet solo sweeps, stirring up waves of subtle harmony. Crotales and harp limn the clarinet's high notes, while woodwinds, including the orchestral clarinets, respond with an ambiguating halo of echoes. What really distinguishes the piece from a large repertoire of equally subtle and complex postserialist works, though, is the tonality-suggestive chords in the lower strings, which make the rest of the texture sound almost like ephemerally flickering upper overtones. The chords are orchestrated at times like harmonic series', with the fundamental and fifth in the basses, ninth and eleventh harmonics in the violins. It makes me surprised that I've never heard Takemitsu mentioned in connection with spectral music, which makes widespread use of such sonorities; and in fact, I've never yet heard a spectralist piece as beautiful as Fantasma/Cantos.
At the same time, reacting empathically as a composer, I'm a little disturbed by a disparity of ends and means in Fantasma/Cantos, and would never be tempted to write a piece like it. Looking at this oversized and extremely complicated score, there are thousands of details I can't hear on the recording, and that would seem to me to obscure the beauty if I could hear them. Hardly any two consecutive measures share the same meter, and the tuplets and subdivisions snake circuitously within them, preventing any audible hint of meter, or even of temporal periodicity, from ever emerging. It's as though Takemitsu went to elaborate lengths to make it sound as though the music simply happened, with no human agent - which, given what little I've read about his aesthetics, is, I feel sure, precisely the case. The music is supposed to sound, and does sound, like a natural, elemental force in motion.
This is a valid and effective musical archetype, and typical of the late 20th century. Some composers feel that all music should aspire to this condition, that it should imitate elemental forces with pristine exactitude. Yet this is an archetype that I and other postminimalist composers of my generation have rejected, often to the consternation of elder composers and our teachers. For this extreme literalism, which rejoices in music's liquid ability to not only represent but embody entropic forces, we have reintroduced a frank admission of music's artificiality. We use audible meters, rhythmic grooves, melodies along a perceptible scale, all those regularities and periodicities that remind the listener that this is something human-made. For the modernist composers this looks like a regression back to the bad old days when notation had too many limitations and thus too much influence, when you could hear the quarter-notes and eighth-notes in the rhythmic grid. The whole point of musical progress, so the scenario runs, was to torture and liquefy the notation so that it was no longer audible, so that it disappeared into a sound surface that resembled pure emotion. To go back from this perfect state to, say, 5/8 meter audibly accented as 3 + 2, or back to the major scale, seems so primitive, a perverse embrace of amateurism.
Yet for me - and maybe for others of my generation, I don't know, I've never heard anyone else express it this way - the value of embracing that particular amateurism is that art has its greatest power as metaphor. Ultimately, I don't want a work of art to be the thing - I want it to be a representation of the thing. The fact that it is a representation made by another human, with marks of its humanity still evident, is part of what gives the work its power over me. The illusionistic emotive/natural verisimilitude of Takemitsu's Fantasma/Cantos is, indeed, dazzlingly impressive and enjoyable to hear - but just because of that the work doesn't exert the same kind of grasp on my emotions as do, say, Glass's Einstein on the Beach, Roy Harris's Third Symphony, John Luther Adams's In the White Silence, or any one of a thousand more stylized works that speak to me human-to-human.
The one notation that, for me, has always most clearly symbolized the fetishistically literal approach to music is the note marked decrescendo "al niente" - "to nothing." I would never, under threat of a horsewhipping, write that into a score. For a sound to gradually vanish into silence, and then reemerge from silence, seems like an attempt to make the music literally a natural phenomenon, and efface its status as a representation. The ceasing to ring of the final chord of a Beethoven sonata is a sufficient metaphor for the vanishing of sound into silence - one does not need to experience the literal slow dying away of the sound for the illusion to be complete. If I want to savor a wail disappearing into the distance, or the tentative whispering of the wind in the leaves, or the indistinguishable murmuring of a conversation on someone's porch down the road, I can walk out in my yard and hear them. But if I am going to have a meaningful exchange with another human, it is best if he or she more or less faces me and enunciates with reasonable clarity. I will not mistake his voice for the decrescendoing caws of Canada geese, nor am I looking to.
Yet an absolute and unquestioned faith in literalism has made it difficult for artists in some fields to use, in good conscience, anything suggestive of artificiality. There was talk on Sequenza 21 recently that the academic poetry world looks down their noses at poets who still use rhyme - rhyme being an artificial aspect of poetry that separates it from actual conversation, and whose disciplined interplay is often responsible for a great deal of its charm. Likewise, it was mentioned that extreme realism in painting is frowned upon today. Now, from the way I described it one might think that detailed realism in painting is the visual-art equivalent of the Takemitsu piece above, but actually it is the recognition of a "realistic" painting being a representation that takes our breath away; the painting equivalent of Takemitsu's emotive verisimilitude would be abstract expressionism, which sometimes tried to make the painting look like a naturally-occuring object untouched by human hand. Likewise, repetition and tonality and recurrent meter - let alone tunes - have encountered considerable objection from the older generation of composers because, I think, they reintroduce frank artificiality, and thus vulnerability. But it's the fact that a composer has used his or her imagination to create a stylized representation of a natural force or emotion, to transform it from the natural realm into something that can speak with a human voice, that makes me want to hear it again and again.
Besides, music that is completely liquified into fluidity can only represent one thing - feeling, or perhaps the natural processes of liquids which, to us, symbolize feeling. Undifferentiated feeling is not the only thing I want to hear in music. Usually I want to hear emotional life not in its id-controlled momentary fluidity, as though I were yearning to regress into pre-verbal infantility, but organized into something more stable and enduring. And usually, what is expressed by this extremely fluid "al niente" music is not really emotion, as in noble or sad or resigned, but a kind of sub-verbal tension and release, the vicissitudes of a violent, anguished reaction. To find a music that explores a particular emotion, as we usually define it, at a sustained length, we would have to go to Baroque music - or pop music, or postminimalist music. And postminimalist music does often attempt to ontologically approximate pop music, in which context the tentative whispering of "al niente" gestures would appear a trifle precious. As Richard Wilbur said in a fine poem,
...Let us have music again when the light dies,
(Sullenly or in glory), and we will give it
Something to organize.
As metaphor, music can indeed organize our collected emotions - it does little good to merely mimic their volatile ebb and flow.
All this is not at all to diminish Takemitsu. In fact, what makes Fantasma/Cantos so remarkably impressive is precisely its one aspect that shows evidence of human organization: those harmonic-series chords underlying the texture, or rather the contrast between those chords and the quasi-disorganized lines that sweep through them, giving the piece its wonderful tension. What's irksome is the common prejudice that such detailed, literal music is somehow more "intellectual" than postminimalist music, with its artificial repetitive and grid-based features. By employing a formidable level of technique to expunge the appearance of human agency, the fluid, orchestrally detailed, anguished, precious, "al niente," style purports to achieve a basic realistic naturalness that is self-evident and non-contingent; in reality, the music simply moves outside the range of criticism by restricting its expressive range to a single dimension. And a music that places itself beyond criticism also places itself beyond being much cared about, though it is deemed impolite to notice this. Like so many hypercomplex modernist works, Fantasma/Cantos is a kind of invulnerable piece, more impressive than lovable. Postminimalist music, wearing its artificiality on its surface, is far more vulnerable to criticism's grasp, and in return more likely to exert a grasp on the listener.
More important to me at the moment, postminimalist music is not the result of a lesser, or less well thought-out, philosophical position. "All art is artificial," said Stravinsky, which applies to both postminimalism and the "al niente" style, however much the latter tries to obscure the fact. In fact, I would argue that the "al niente" style isn't the result of any philosophical position at all, but of a fanaticism about technique which was allowed to run away with the music. It's a shame that composers don't talk aesthetics much any more, and I mean aesthetics in the broadest philosophical sense. When I was young I studied every book on the subject I could lay my hands on, and the one that had most impact on me was Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art. "That a picture looks like nature," Goodman wrote, "often means only that it looks like the way nature is usually painted." He goes on to demonstrate that the artist cannot escape interpreting reality, since "there is no such thing as the way the world is." We think that the detailed, gestural style represents some kind of bedrock reality because it's the way nature has been painted for much of the 20th century. In reality, though, it's the postminimalists who have moved beyond a specious literalism to embrace the inevitable artificiality of all artistic representation.
In 1995 I wrote a piece of music called Fractured Paradise. I've just been contacted by someone who wants to start a clothing line of that name, and is quasi-asking permission. I have no idea what to say. It's true I wouldn't, at this point, write a piece called Fruit of the Loom. I can't figure out if this is a problem or not.
Yesterday I started to tell a class about this Greek composer named Iannis Xenakis, and someone piped up, "You mean Yanni?" Whew.
A former Peabody composition student tells me that I was mistaken to include that school on a list of schools where the professors limit what kinds of music their students can write. He recounts that the faculty there is entirely permissive, but says it's most of the students who adhere to a homogenous, bland neoromanticism, while their professors leave them perfectly free to explore more interesting avenues. And now that he mentions it, I had heard the same story from another, current Peabody grad student.
Why do I have trouble believing this? Because I'm a baby-boomer, and for my generation the possibility of students being more conservative than their teachers is an affront to our entire worldview, a fatal threat to our optimism that things may someday improve. Young Siegfrieds should always break Wotan's staff and demand to pass by. But I know it happens these days, that the young sometimes embrace a timid, backward-looking aesthetic despite faculty raving at them to be more adventurous. I've watched it. And yet, when I see student composers embracing musical anachronism, I reflexively form theories of repressive faculty to explain it. Not always the case - sometimes just my generational quirk.
[This entry has been updated, 9-19-05]
Ben Wolfson weighs in with a contrasting view to the Keith Jarrett quote in my last post:
I was reminded by the Keith Jarrett quote you posted on Saturday of Derek Bailey's description of learning to improvise in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, where... he basically says that one must do it by apprenticing oneself to a more experienced interviewer. He quotes from an Indian correspondent whose description of how he learned to improvise (granted, within a particular tradition), was explicitly mimetic: "What happens is that your teacher, when he's in the mood to teach you a particular raga, won't say to you, 'this is the scalic structure of the raga and these are the notes used in that raga'--what he will do is to play to you and tell you to listen and perhaps ask you to imitate certain phrases that he is playing. And gradually, after hearing him do this several times, what you do is to acquire a feeling for that raga ...". He also compares it to being like learning a language, saying that it's natural, in that case, for one to add one's own phrases--which I think makes for an interesting contrast with Jarrett's claim that all a player needs is a teacher to show him how to use the instrument, since it's not as if you can be instructed in an instrument without being instructed *in a particular way.*
Well, OK, I guess that's the difference between a traditional musical style like Indian ragas and an individualistic one like jazz. The question is - which is classical? My hunch (I can't very well leave you to thrash this out on your own) is that European classical music might be considered a relatively traditional style, and postclassic music, or Downtown music, or American music, is individualistic. Until somebody comes up with a better quote.
UPDATE: All right, so superb jazz pianist Ethan Iverson has thickened the plot by breaking down some of our nice, careful distinctions:
Keith Jarrett has a VERY individual style, but he has also been VERY influenced by Paul Bley, Bill Evans, and early jazz (especially ragtime)....he studied with them by listening to them and imitating, for sure! In other words, I firmly admire KJ's playing, but I think he protests too much in that quote. He copped plenty!
I can't argue with that. I might add that what's important to me about the original Jarrett quote isn't its literal truth, but its inspiring implied admonition to go deeper and deeper into oneself for the source of one's music, never settling for anything you've merely been taught. The extent to which studying with a teacher aids in that process or detracts from it is probably subject to a trillion individual variations - and fertile as the subject is, I'm feeling a need to move on.
With reference to all the hoopla lately (here and at Sequenza 21) regarding whether or not composition can be taught, singer-composer Emily Bezar (whose lovely music you should check out) tenders a relevant quote from Keith Jarrett she read in last month's Downbeat magazine:
Schools cannot create innovation. Innovation and schools are almost diametrically opposed. A jazz player cannot study with jazz people because you become a part of who you study with. So, you can't become yourself. No one will help you on that issue. If you're improvising and it's not coming from you, it's not worth playing because it's been played before, probably by the people who taught you.
And as for the school of thought of emulating people to find your own voice, I don't think so. All a pianist needs is a piano-teacher to teach you how to use the instrument. After that, it's nobody's game but yours.
Forgot to mention that my review of the new recording of Johnny Reinhard's realization of Charles Ives's Universe Symphony is in the Village Voice this week.
Q. What's Bush's position on Roe versus Wade?
A. Actually, he doesn't care how the poor get out of New Orleans.
OK, so I wasn't the first to get it on the internet, but I was in the top ten. This isn't my only job, you know.
There's a fairly interesting interview in Salon today with an anthropologist in Arizona who enrolled in her own school as a freshman, anonymously, in order to study her own school's students as an anthropologist, and figure out what made them tick. (She tried to publish the book under a pseudonym, but got outed by a reporter who figured out who she must be by process of elimination.) The interview isn't terribly substantive, and it's difficult to tell whether the book is more so. But two things she says ring a bell with me.
The first is that the students themselves estimated that they learned only about 35 percent of what they learned in classrooms, and the other 65 percent outside the classroom. She's surprised by this; I'm not. Thinking of my own education, I had always estimated about 20 percent in, 80 percent out. It's true that I skipped more classes than I should have. But even so, I never found classroom teaching a very efficient communicator of knowledge. I always felt that the most important things professors told me came from one-to-one meetings, especially chance encounters in the hallway, or at the intermissions of concerts. I still believe that learning from a composition teacher has less to do with technical points, or criticism of individual scores, than with absorbing the attitudes of a "real" composer: observing how one's teacher responds to criticism of his music, for example, or how they react to the public success of other composers. As a teacher, a composer is of limited value, but as a personal model, it's fascinating to absorb his or her attitudes towards life, towards other composers, professional opportunities, disappointment, and so on. I know I learned a lot of things from Morton Feldman and Ben Johnston that had little to do with what they were explicitly trying to teach me. It was their attitudes that were helpful models.
This doesn't mean, of course, that I would advocate abandoning the class structure of college. I can't imagine what you'd replace it with as a pretext to bring students and professionals together, to allow the students to get to know the professionals well enough to ask the important questions outside of class. I'm a strong believer in peripheral learning: just as our peripheral vision takes in certain kinds of detail better than direct vision, and I learn things about my own music from peripheral listening that intent listening would miss, I think a lot of the most profound learning occurs in situations in which one doesn't expect to be learning anything.
The other thing this anthropolgist said is:
Anyone who said they did have a philosophical conversation might qualify it, like, "Yeah, we were really drunk that night, so we got into all this deep philosophical stuff," or "Yeah, sometimes I get into this dorky mood and then I talk about deep topics." When you hear that as an anthropologist, you think the students are responding to a criticism that isn't even being made, that is in their head.
The interviewer suggested that there might be a big difference between students at Northern Arizona University and Yale in this respect, based on differences in student intelligence and ambition - but the anthropolgist didn't think so, and neither do I. Here at Bard I've noticed that students express some embarrassment about their serious conversations, and some purported connection between being drunk and talking philosophy is common. And that's a shame. When I was a student, I spent a lot of time arguing with my friend Marcus McDaniel, who had been my best friend in high school and with whom I roomed for a year in college (and who remains one of my best friends today), about philosophy, epistemology, politics, the nature of the world, and the ultimate meaning of life. I and a lot of my friends spent a considerable amount of time (cold sober) in such enlightening conversations, learning which arguments held water and which ones didn't. It was a kind of knowledge that we couldn't entirely learn from professors, if much at all, and I owe a lot to it. But it does seem to me that today's students are a little ashamed to argue about such abstract matters, and pass off such conversations as a little masturbatory and unimportant - as if it weren't crucially important for each new generation to remake the world on its own terms.
I have to quote, in its near-entirety, this story that composer Jeff Harrington tells over at Sequenza 21, in a continuation of an ongoing argument, about professor pressure in composition grad school:
...This period is history and needs to be remembered. I was told throughout my student years, even during my graduate studies in 1987-88 at Tulane that I had to write in certain styles. During my graduate studies then, my graduate teacher told me that she would not give an MFA to somebody who wrote 'tonal music'. I remember coming home to Elsie, my wife and she burst out in tears, 'She can't make you do that...'. I went on to write a Stravinskyan piece, entirely out of place with my current aesthetic (and I was 35 at the time and had been composing for 17 years) because I wanted that MFA. Strangely enough, that post-tonal Stravinskyan aesthetic is what I was later to embrace (with a few mods) and forms my current musical language. Ouch!
I had no choice as to whether to continue or not, we were broke living in New Orleans, and my only way out as I could see it was to go back to school and get a Doctorate. My sole income was the teaching assistantship.
When I told Elliott Carter that I had no interest in writing expressionistic music, that I thought expressionism was played out and pointless (I was writing kind of Vivier-esque pieces at the time, very slow and weird) he said I might as well give up composing as I would never have a career, never get performed and never amount to anything. He was adamant. Atonal expressionism was the future, period.
Again, we need to preserve these memories as it's too easy to make it seem like a few bad eggs, when in fact practically the entire American musical education environment was Stalinist in this regard.
I've never met Elliott Carter, never wanted to, but I've heard a lot of stories about him being a dictatorial son-of-a-bitch and telling young composers that there was only one way to write music.
You've GOT to see this priceless photo/caption combination that Jan Herman got hold of. Sometimes the truth just suddenly appears in our midst and announces itself.
I received interesting responses to my post on the "Post-Prohibitive Era," about why some composers still push their students to write music in mid-20th-century styles.
Matt Malsky quotes Cage's paraphrase of Sri Ramakrishna in Silence:
"Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words, with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time)?"
Cage's ambiguous answer [Matt continues] is, "In order to thicken the plot." But, in a post-prohibitive age, what is the plot? And what thickens it?
Carolyn Bremer, prof at Cal State at Long Beach, has kind of a stunningly simple answer as to why the big music schools hire more intransigent modernists than the less well-known ones:
University faculties are hired by university faculties. At big composition programs, search committees are stacked with composers. They'll hire someone they like, which too often translates into someone who will like their music.
At smaller programs, search committees are staffed with musicians of all sorts: performers, conductors, historians, whatever. They have no trouble with diatonic music.
It's certainly true that you get a more diverse search committee in a small department. It's also true that search committees made up of composers invariably claim that they're looking for diversity in the make-up of their department. But they never mean it.
Rodney Lister of the Sequenza 21 crowd notes that each of the schools I mentioned offers at least one professor who will be receptive to whatever style of music a student wants to write in. That might be true. But why is that good enough? Why should, for instance, any student encounter a single composition teacher who tells him he can't use key signatures, when some publicly successful music has been written in recent decades with key signatures (I might mention Steve Reich's Octet, or Adams's Nixon in China)? If a student went to school for chemistry and four of the chemistry professors wouldn't deal with any element in the periodic table higher than Plutonium, because that was the highest element when they graduated, why should that student be forced to seek out and only study with the fifth professor, who's heard of Bohrium? Shouldn't those other professors be pushed into retirement if they can't keep up with the field? And shouldn't a composer who seeks to prevent others from using key signatures, majors scales, etc. have the onus placed on him to provide a rational justification for such prohibition, or else put a lid on it? Besides, a lot of damage can be done if the first professor a student encounters lays down some ridiculous law. I had the chutzpah to blow off my teachers' mandates, but not every freshman is so confident.
Rodney feels that the New Romantic composers have been, in general, more dogmatic than the serialists, and from what little evidence I have, that might be true, too. He and I agreed, though, that the problem is often not intrinsically stylistic, but a result of composers trying to turn their students into clones of themselves. There are two possible motivations - increasing one's fame down the road by virtue of one's apparent influence (or simply keeping one's style current), or the laziness of not having to get inside another creative person's head. Personally, I find the tactic very foreign. I find it easier to teach a student whose music is very different from mine, because I can come up with more objective solutions to their problems. If a student's music has a lot in common with mine, I'm too tempted to show them what I'd do in my music, which ends up being a distortion of what they're trying to do. Of course, for a lot of composition teachers, succumbing to that very temptation is probably exactly the point.
And although Shostakovich and Britten are two composers I never personally warmed up to, I like Lawrence Dillon's suggestion that their music should have been analyzed in composition departments right along with Carter and Cage, as important members of the same generation. Certainly the ideological bias with which academia separates out acceptable composers from unacceptable ones bears some self-examination. Even the pre-20th-century ones: Brahms is the darling of academia; Bruckner, a genius of large-scale harmonic structure, is ignored, and Liszt, a protean figure who wrote a ton of groundbreaking music among his lesser works, is scornfully dismissed, except for his Sonata. Schoenberg, of course, is rated many times higher in college music departments than he is elsewhere on the planet. Music professors are occupied with primarily the left-brain aspects of music: structure, syntax, motivic development, pitch set transformation. This encourages them to neglect half of the musical virtues, and for most music lovers, it's the more important half. Given academia's miserable track record at turning out composers of enjoyable music, they could certainly stand to look their left-brain bias square in the face and make some correctives.
Diamanda Galas is, on the other hand, a genuine original and a living, breathing survivor of a largely vanished downtown.
UPDATE: Downtowner Tom Hamilton asks, "Why are we now characterized as 'survivors?' Is 'evacuee' next, followed by 'refugee'?"
I was 19 when I wrote the first piece that I still, today, consider worth performing. A 180-degree departure from my previous music, it was all on the C major scale, with no sharps or flats. My composition teacher at the time, one of the most brilliant men I've ever met, utterly disapproved. He told me I should be using "good 20th-century intervals like tritones and sevenths and ninths." Even at that age, I had enough common sense to wonder how in the world a brilliant guy like that could hold a notion as silly as the fiction that there was some kind of mystical link between certain intervals and certain historical eras. In the moment he said that, I kind of realized that the last remaining strings that tied me to 20th-century modernism had been cut.
Today young composers come and tell me that their professors won't let them write the kind of music they want to. What's wrong with the music they want to write? It's too... tonal, or too consonant, or too triadic, or it doesn't have climaxes, or it's not tense enough, or not gestural enough, or it's too slow, or too happy, or too static, or too pop-influenced, or it doesn't have enough dynamics marked. One student from a prestigious grad school said, "Will you take a look at my music? The faculty and other students make fun of it because I use key signatures." None of this is any less silly than "use good 20th-century intervals like tritones and sevenths and ninths." They come to me at my school, from other schools, sometimes even across the country, because they've figured out somehow that I will let students compose any kind of music they want.
I know exactly what their previous teachers think of me because of that. They think that I have no standards, that I'm wishy-washy, that I don't understand the Great Musical Tradition, that I'm not dedicated to quality. (I once heard second-hand what George Perle thinks of me: "I don't get this Kyle Gann guy, he seems to only criticize every piece on its own merits." He didn't mean it as a compliment. And a colleague recently accused me of "false-fueling" the students, i.e., letting the "untalented" ones think they were pretty good.) It's not true. I criticize plenty of things in my students' music. This week a composer working in pure conventional tonality came, and among other things I substituted a VII chord for his IV chord because his harmonic rhythm lagged in mid-phrase. A few years ago I had a brilliant guy writing a big, bangy Uptown piece, and I made sure that no extraneous gestures vitiated the noisy climax he was trying to create. One student wanted to write an atonal string quartet, and I stopped him, not because I don't allow atonality, but because he had never even heard an atonal string quartet before, and was just dutifully fulfilling some expectation he'd gotten from somewhere. In all these years, after dozens of students, I've only had about three who wrote the same general kind of postminimalist music that I do. I'll allow any kind of music I know how to criticize, and if I can't criticize it, I'll send them to someone else. One kid doing a kind of dance-oriented electronica was just out of my field, as was another student writing algorithmic Max/MSP charts. But God forbid any student should ever tell a composer, "Kyle Gann won't let me write the music I hear in my head."
I don't pretend to be unique in this regard, but we are less numerous than is usually admitted. Lots of composition teachers say they never discriminate by style, only by quality, but in reality they consider the "wrong" style deficient in quality. And in my experience, the teachers who match my liberality tend to be at the lesser-known music schools. The young composers who complain to me about their repressive teachers don't come from Tennessee Tech and University of Arkansas, they come from Peabody, Eastman, Columbia, UCSD. It does seem that the nearer you are to the top of the compositional heap, the more invested you probably are in a specious historical essentialism without rational foundation, an idea that 20th-century music MUST express a certain kind of tension and anguish, a certain dissonance and complexity. Earth to composers: the 20th century is over! Or they say, these are violent times, and our music must express that violence - a simplistic reflex that no reputable aesthetic theory of the last 3,000 years would support. Lacking any intellectual framework for their mandates, the only message they really have is: CONFORM. How depressing that composers, of all people, should push that particular button, and what vivid evidence that, though they may put notes on paper, they are not artists.
I talked to Peter Garland recently, a composer of gorgeously simple diatonic music, and he made a wistful comment that by now we ought to be living in a "post-prohibitive" age - that is, there should be nothing that is off-limits for composers to write. Certainly composing is a dialogue with the past, and any good composer should be extending or inventing some tradition, commenting on and building on and criticizing and rejecting some music he or she loves. But composers have so many different pasts now, and who are we to tell them their past is the wrong one?
"HEY YOU - you've got the wrong past. Get out, and don't come back in here until you get a different one."
The students who listen to their big-shot teachers and obey go out dutifully writing the kind of dreary, complicated, tension-filled, angst-ridden music they've been told to write, and their big-shot teachers get them commissions and orchestral premieres, and that timid, uncreative music sticks in our orchestral tract like an indigestible meal. I can't believe that, thirty years after "good 20th-century intervals" were urged on me, I'm still fighting this laughable generational impasse. And when composer Cary Boyce, in Sequenza 21 this week, characterized late-20th-century music as "the sentimentality of despair," I was thrilled to realize again that there are other composers out there rebelling against the conformity.
I was just interrupted in my writing by a couple of Christians of some stripe or another come to the door to hand me some inspirational literature, much as I was brainwashed into doing as a teenager. One of them brought up the inevitable subject of Hurricane Katrina, and asked if I believed that God intentionally allowed such massive suffering. I told him that I didn't know about God, but that an awful lot of suffering was allowed by the human beings in charge that they should have prevented. He looked genuinely surprised, as though gripped by a quasi-Islamic fatalism convinced that all suffering is God's will, and that there's nothing the Hand of Man can or should do to ameliorate it.
I wonder what he would have done if I had knocked him down my porch steps with a good punch in the nose and said, sorry, that was God's will. Reporting me to the police would have been a little inconsistent, wouldn't it?
By the way, this is the first anniversary of Postclassic Radio. I moved a little closer to an all-woman-composer playlist by adding Diamanda Galas's You Must Be Certain of the Devil in its entirety last night. Sorry the playlist on my web page is so divorced from reality.
I'm pretty swamped by writing jobs at the moment. Mostly for money - Bard pays the mortgage and electricity, but if I want to continue smoking Padrone cigars and drinking Old Vine Red, those liner notes and program notes have to keep coming. But one job I'm doing I'm very excited about: liner notes for the first commercial recording of music by Julius Eastman. Eastman (1940-1990) was a brilliant singer, fabulous pianist, politically aggressive gay African-American, outrageous personality, and one of the important musical figures of the generation just after the minimalists. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Eight Songs for a Mad King for his versatile, sepulchral voice. [CORRECTION: Oops, this is in dispute, and I'm told the piece was written for Roy Hart; but Eastman became famous for the amazing recording.] Julius somehow let his life go to hell after 1983; at one point he was evicted from his New York apartment, his scores and belongings thrown out on the street by the sherriff, and he ended up sleeping in Tompkins Square Park. He died all alone in a hospital in Buffalo in 1990, and no one on the music scene even knew about it. But I got wind of a rumor, called Julius's family, "broke" the story, and wrote an obituary in the Village Voice eight months after he died.
Julius's music has been difficult to reconstruct, but thanks to Mary Jane Leach, Peter Gena, and others, New World has gathered enough good recordings from Julius's lifetime to put together a well representative three-CD set. Three of the pieces are from a concert at Northwestern University that I attended and assisted in as a student there: three huge, hammering, pent-up-energetic essays for multiple pianos called Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla. As far as I know, the only place they've been heard publicly in 20 years is on Postclassic Radio, because I saved the recordings. Without having heard those pieces, I probably wouldn't have written my Long Night for three pianos just afterward; and an echo of Gay Guerrilla survived in the primary motive of my chamber piece Hovenweep. Julius was a big musical influence on me, and then he nearly disappeared to history.
I first heard Julius perform in 1974, last ran into him in 1989, and got to know him somewhat in several encounters in-between. Some of my stories about him I can't use in my liner notes, like the time at New Music America 1980 when I unwittingly let him lead me into a gay bar in Minneapolis - it took me a moment to figure out why all these burly men were wearing midriff shirts, but I kept calm, stayed 15 minutes before excusing myself politely on account of other commitments, and thought I handled it pretty coolly for being only 24 and very inexperienced. He used to try to talk me and Peter into trying out gayness in that mellifluous deep bass of his. He griped at us for using deoderant, saying, "Only straights use deoderant these days," to which Peter would yell, "Julius, whaddaya think we are?!" He was an incredible character. I'm so glad his music is coming out in a big chunk, and proud to be involved. Look for it on New World in a couple of months.
Vivian Perlis, the great pioneer of oral music history, and Libby Van Cleve, expert oboist-turned-musicologist, are coming out with their first volume of oral American music history, Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington (Yale Univ. Press, two compact discs included). I got an advance copy, and it's fascinating reading; can't put it down. Here's an excerpt from some 1977-78 interviews with the great Virgil Thomson:
I came from Europe in the fall of 1940. I didn't have any money, and wasn't going to be earning any, so I came home. I took a job as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune and stayed there until I had nothing more to say - fourteen years. I had not any experience at all with newspaper routines, but you learn those overnight. [How true.] I've always been a fast writer. I had no trouble meeting deadlines - I like them. If you know how much time you've got, then you know what you can do. I think music reviewing should be a serious musical job. You must try not to be a victim of your power or start throwing your weight. Whenever I wrote about music, I was writing about my own profession and speaking from a responsible point of view. I wasn't teaching music appreciation not knowing anything about it. I was explaining music as I knew it and believed it to be my duty. All living musicians, including critics, are part of one great band or conspiracy for the defense of musical faith and its propagation. They are always treading on each other's toes, but they all have membership in the professional world of music. Their quarrels are family quarrels.
I can write quite easily, almost without correcting, except what you correct as you go along. Perhaps the only time I made extra drafts of things was on the [auto-]biographical book [Virgil Thomson, 1966], because you don't know how to write about yourself. You have to find an attitude, and it takes some trial....
I am not a careless writer. As I say, I don't mind correcting indefinitely and finding a better word or a more courteous way of saying something, but the main draft goes straight through. There is no point in getting angry to colleagues. Those are the people that you are going to live with all your life, whether you like their music or not, and liking it or not is the least interesting thing you can say about it. The most interesting thing you can do is describe it because your attitude will come through automatically in your choice of words. You know as well as I do that in writing it's a willingness to tamper and correct until you get it acceptable to yourself, and you try it out on people - I have not been the least bit afraid of editorial help. I like it. You find out (I tell this to students all the time) you not only have to say what you mean, you have to be willing to mean what you have said.
Anybody can use anything he wants to, but the twelve-tone period is a very strange one in the history of music. Every time I've tried serialism, I've found it deadening. There is no audience for it anymore. There never was. It was in the composers' minds that there might be. If Schoenberg and his two pupils, Berg and Webern, had not been such wonderful musicians so that some kind of expressive thing came through from time to time, the serial business would never have got anywhere.
One of my favorite pieces that I got to hear live for the first time on the recent Bard Music Festival was Thomson's Symphony on a Hymn Tune. I knew every note by heart, but I wasn't prepared for the unsettling live effect of Thomson's whimsical orchestration. A chorale would suddenly be taken over by the three trombones in the back, or the entire orchestra would sit there silent as a cello played a long simple solo; then the concertmaster would play by himself, and a piccolo would start up behind him. Nor could I have anticipated how hilarious it was to watch an entire orchestra rip along through "Yes, Jesus Loves Me." A recording flattens out these incongruities, and you just don't notice them. It was absolutely audacious music, radical in its use of the orchestra, which revealed the orchestra not as an illusion of a great blended mass, but as a group of individuals, any one of whom might have his or her own points to make. No wonder so many professional composers didn?t respect his music: it abandoned illusionistic expertise in favor of humorous realism. I admired Copland for accepting that. When a friend mentioned that Thomson's music was "dumb," Copland replied, "Yes, I know, but it's intentionally dumb. He's the American Satie."
In fact, I've been thinking lately that, despite all our magnificent innovators that my ilk make such a big deal about, the American classical music audience is actually a dull, pedestrian audience, like the British audience. They actively prefer music that is expert, prestige-oriented, conventional, and forgettable to music that is imaginative and audacious. They give complexity a condescending pat on the head, and are affronted by frank simplicity. I've always tried to believe that it is due to composer politics that great composers like Thomson are shamefully neglected (why had I never had a chance to hear Symphony on a Hymn Tune live before?). But sitting in that audience, relishing every confrontational asburdity of that nose-thumbing score, I got a feeling that the people around me were uncomfortable, and wished they could get back to something like the bland, sedately "serious" thickness of Copland's Symphonic Ode, which allowed them to daydream undisturbed.
Over at Sequenza 21, composer Galen H. Brown has written an essay explaining where my blog fits into musical politics, and arguing eloquently for my continuing it. He transplants into the musical realm David Brock's argument from his book The Republican Noise Machine that the Republicans took their own lunatic fringe overly seriously in order to alter the public perception of where the center of the political spectrum lies, moving it far right from where it used to be. Therefore, argues Brown, substituting the concept of Mainstream Classical Media for that of Mainstream Media, I need to be pushing the most extreme Downtown elements in music, no matter how much resistance I encounter, in order to move the public perception of the Uptown-Downtown spectrum Downtown-ward so that it more accurately matches the current reality - since the MCM (Mainstream Classical Media) has the perception skewed way in the direction of Uptown. And the time to do this is now, while internet coverage of classical music is still in a nascent and malleable state. It's an elegant argument. I acquiesce to my fate.
UPDATE: Brown had called me "the Rush Limbaugh of Classical Music," but Jerry Bowles now pipes in and claims that I'm not a "fat, stupid druggie." Shows how much he knows.
Sites To See
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary